Heading into camp the only question will be whether or not they can stay healthy. There is no doubt that Ray Henderson, the senior from Cresskill, New Jersey, will be the middle linebacker and it's very likely he will be a defensive captain. He displayed leadership qualities last season, specifically at halftime of the Notre Dame game when he gave the team a pep-talk that ultimately inspired them to victory. He was one of the few players who showed emotion following last year's home loss to Syracuse; when I asked him about it a month later, he still couldn't believe what had happened. You could see the disappointment in his eyes, and I'm sure he will use that as motivation on the field in 2005.
Henderson will be flanked by senior Ricky Brown and sophomore Brian Toal. Toal, the 2004 Big East Rookie of the Year, started the final eight games of the season and ended up as BC's second-leading tackler. Hailing from Wyckoff, New Jersey, Toal was one of the biggest recruits in BC history, and he made an immediate impact in his rookie season. As a sophomore Toal will have to step his game up even more, as BC will have to compete with the speed of teams like Florida State, Virginia Tech and possibly even Miami in 2005. Toal is probably the fastest linebacker on BC's roster and has great closing speed. If he continues to progress, look for him to be an All-Conference linebacker for the next three seasons.
Ricky Brown did play defensive back in high school, but he is by no means undersized. And he was never pegged to be a safety by Tom O'Brien and staff. He's been a tough-as-nails linebacker since his freshman year, and he actually led the team in tackles a season ago (81) as he started all 12 games for the Eagles. While not quite as fast as Toal, Brown covers the field very well.
The Eagles of days passed had difficulty stopping the run to the outside, but with Toal and Brown at OLB teams were not quite as successful at running the ball along the sidelines in 2004. Another major reason for this was the Eagles' depth at all three linebacker positions, and with an impressive crop of rising redshirt freshmen and sophomores, the Eagles are loaded in 2005.
JoLonn Dunbar, a converted running back, might give Toal a run for his money in a foot race. He saw a good deal of action in 2004 playing behind Henderson as a redshirt freshman and, if he can stay healthy, Dunbar should be a key contributor during his sophomore campaign. He gives the Eagles invaluable depth in the middle. Tyronne Pruitt- a local product from Brockton, Mass.- spent all of 2004 on the two-deep and saw a good deal of playing time backing up Ricky Brown. He was impressive, recording 28 tackles including a quarterback sack against Connecticut.
Heading into camp it will be interesting to see which freshmen step up. Robert Francois is certainly a candidate, as he impressed the coaching staff during his tenure on the scout team last year. At 6'2", 227 pounds he has the size to play linebacker in the ACC. Tom Walls, another of BC's New Jersey linebackers, seems to be more of a middle linebacker size-wise. It will be interesting to see where he plays once camp begins.
As the beginning of camp draws near, there's not much of a doubt as to what BC's linebacker corps will look like. They return five of six players from 2004's two-deep, and the only question mark will be who steps up behind Brian Toal. If BC's linebackers play to their potential, they could be one of the ACC's best units.
Already, they are probably the best group of linebackers Tom O'Brien and staff have ever had.